'Breying the Riems' signed and dated '36 / PRELLER' (upper right) oil on canvas 72 x 62.2cm (28 3/8 x 24 1/2in).
LITERATURE E. Berman & K. Nel, Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows, (Johannesburg, 2009), p.29
In 1935 Preller's mother Livvy and sister Minnie visited the aspiring artist in his newly established surroundings in London. He took great delight in showing his family artworks by the titans of post impressionism, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. Preller's instinctual responses to these artists would persist throughout his life.
At the beginning of 1936, the artist commenced the year by devoting all his time to painting. The variety of subjects which he chose to paint reflected the range of ideas which he was exploring. While still-lifes, interiors and portraiture claimed his attention, he was more focused on figure studies. Christi Truter, an acquaintance whom the artist had recently met at a New Year's party, became the subject for the numerous figure studies with which Preller experimented. However, several of the other figure studies included African figures, which the artist had seen while travelling to the countryside. At the start of his career, the young artist created numerous paintings of African subjects handled in a similar manner to Gauguin's Tahitian compositions. Comparable to Gauguin's early paintings which often depicted Tahitian women busy with simple, daily tasks, Preller too portrays an elementary task of breying the riems (preparing leather strips for various applications), rendering this early artwork an interesting genre scene. Just as Gauguin placed the heavy, hieratic figures in their own space, Preller assimilated by portraying the figure in his own space with an indeterminate mask or profile.
In the same way that Van Gogh focused on learning the essentials of figure drawing and depicting landscapes in correct perspective, Preller too began his career focusing on these two concepts. In addition to his explorations of depicting the human figure in proportionate landscapes, the bold colour handling, rhythm and design in this early work demonstrates Preller's youthful influence by the Dutch and French masters. Breying the Riems is an apparent demonstration of Preller's striving to achieve the resonance contained in the technique and colour handling of his idols. However, it is clear that at this early stage of the artist's career, he was still searching for his own creative voice and specific personal direction. These African studies would soon serve as the pointer to Preller's ultimate direction.
The artist quickly recognised that it was Africa itself: its identity and spirit; that he was hoping to reflect in his own art. The paintings of Paul Gauguin, who went to Tahiti to live among the people of a so-called 'primitive' society, were perhaps a more suitable guide to the direction he might follow. In the second half of 1936, the artist held two solo shows at Leon Levenson's photographic studio in Johannesburg. Breying the Riems was included in this exhibition.
BIBLIOGRAPHY E. Berman & K. Nel, Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows,(Johannesburg, 2009), pp. 27-29